Saturday, December 17, 2016

Staying Connected

One of the best features of the Christmas season for me is contacting my many out-of-town or seldom-heard from friends and relatives, conveying best wishes. This annual ritual is a reminder that we are all connected.

It is very easy for me, as a writer and reader who loves solitude, who disconnects the telephone at certain times so my wife and I can write, to feel restless and lonely, isolated in my comfortable bubble.  As I think of the many single people I know living alone, I often think of the Lennon-McCartney song, "Eleanor Rigby," with its refrain: "Ah, look at all the lonely people."

Why are there so many people who feel alone, unwanted, or useless every day?  I think of my elderly neighbor, whose frustration with the limitations of her life at 89 causes her to lash out in anger at the caregiver who's there to help her. If only she could feel a part of the greater whole that surrounds her--in nature, the world of ideas and music, the friends and family who think of her every day, the prayers said for her.  She is surrounded by love.

Achieving such a feeling of being loved and connected is not easy. Sometimes it comes naturally, the way prayer does after a dry spell that we must endure before finding a sense of relatedness to God, or, if you prefer, to Life.

I combat feelings of isolation by an awareness of the many people who admire me, think of me, write to me, maybe pray for me--sight unseen.  I think of the strangers who read this blog in various countries--or something else I have published: something I have written has interested them, or moved or helped them in some way.

Or I can think of the many thousands of students who have benefited from my classes (and still do) as well as family members, now gone, whose faces and voices I can still hear in my mind. Or I think of the saints since I believe that somehow, in the great mystery of things, I am surrounded by many who wish me well, from this side of the grave or the other.  Their memories of me might be more positive than I will ever know. And our connection is real.

So, I tell myself, I am surrounded by good will. I know dozens of people I can call on for help, other than  my wife.  Moreover, from what I know about biology, I am aware that I live in a interconnected world of supportive relationships.  I am a living part of nature, related to the plants and animals, to the stars at night that remind me that millions of others in many other places are seeing the same stars, maybe feeling that they, too, are part of the cosmos.

I am reminded that the Greek word "cosmos" means order, also ornamentation (as in cosmetics), and so the universe or cosmos means the ordered beauty of the reality in which I live and breathe and have my being.
Of course, the media, too, are daily reminders that we are part of a global community. I like to think that love, in the form of caring or compassion, is at work in these contexts: altruism, which is said to exist in our very genes, is real, as in the effort of most of us to make our planet healthier.

If we live in isolation, believing we are inferior to everyone else or superior to them, we are living in the kind of hell depicted by T. S. Eliot ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock").  The answer: reach out and contact the sick or lonely or depressed neighbor. Write an email to someone who'd appreciate a reminder that they are not forgotten. Or ask for help: it will come.

Those contemplatives in my Catholic tradition (monks, nuns) who are physically apart from public life are linked, as Thomas Merton once wrote, in a "friendly communion of silence."  I think of them every day.  Richard Rohr, writing in this religious context, writes:  "we are already in union with God. .  .inside a life larger than us that can't be taken from us."  The union of the divine with the human is precisely what is celebrated at Christmas.

As Merton wrote, because we are a part of God, who is in us, "we are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity.  What we have to be is what we already are."

My first wish for those of you who read this rambling post or other musings of mine is that you will contact me with a comment: use the Comments section or my email: Thank you.

Even if I don't hear from you, I know you are there and that you, like me, are part of this living cosmos united in love and with every reason to celebrate Christmas.  My second (and primary) wish is that you enjoy a season of true peace that extends into the coming year.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

How Bad is Boredom?

Many of the heavyweights who have written knowledgably about boredom have seen it as negative, perhaps akin to depression, certainly related to the inevitable restlessness we all experience. I have written about it as a fear of running out of things to do.

Andreas Elpidorou, writing in Aeon, suggests the positive benefits of boredom: it alerts us to the need to be creative, to break out of the unfulfilling activity we are engaged in.

First, he says, not everyone who experiences boredom, which is to say nearly everyone at some time, is prone to ongoing boredom, a more serious issue (depression, I assume, though he doesn't use that word). If a sensation of pain alerts us to a problem in our bodies, then the feeling of boredom is a signal that we are pursuing the wrong thing for us spiritually; we are being prompted to find something else to do.

In a popular culture where distractions abound, that should not be hard. In fact, the culture of 24/7 entertainment functions as a kind of narcotic, writes Ron Rolheiser.  Of course, as he points out, we often need a palliative from pain, so we turn to music or movies or games to protect us from feeling hurt. But, Rolheiser says, too often this narcotic becomes a way of escaping the reality of our inner lives.

In a world of instant communication, in cities where restaurants and clubs are open around the clock to please us, we can be amused, distracted, and catered to any time of the day or night.  Our TVs contain hundreds of channels, and iPods give us access to vast libraries of music. But are we happy?  Do we not still remain bored, restless?

Some say our popular culture is giving us a permanent attention deficit disorder: we pay attention to so many things that we aren't giving real attention to anything that matters.  We are so busy being distracted that we seldom find opportunities to feel deeply our connection with others.

It takes a serious illness or death in the family sometimes for some people to start paying attention to what's going on inside them, to reflect on the meaning of life. All the stimulation and entertainment in the world can't help us live in peace with ourselves and those who love us.

In other words, the soul needs attention. As Rumi wrote, we rush from room to room desperately searching for the necklace that's around our neck.

So when I feel restless or bored with the same routine of humdrum activities, I must remind myself that, instead of turning to the media, I can turn inward.  I can find within myself, through solitude and silence, an essential link to what some call God, others call the essential reality of the now.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Seeing the Trees

Whenever I can, I drive a mile or so from my home to a lakeside park to enjoy the beauty not only of the large lake but of the giant cypress trees, hung with Spanish moss. Looking at the water through the cluster of these trees is always memorable because I am taken out of myself.

The trees are home in the spring to nesting egrets, large white birds who are wise to choose such a lofty perch.  In April, they can be noisy. On my recent visits to the lake, all is quiet except for occasional boats.

This spot has become for me a prayerful place, a place to see the reality of the present.  "Most people don't see things as they are," Richard Rohr writes, "because they see things as they are."  And this is not seeing at all.

It is looking with the small self, the ego. To see and observe trees, in this case, and the serenity of the lakeside park is to move beyond myself, to follow Rohr's line of contemplative reflection, and to grasp a larger reality since my life is not just about me in isolation. It's about me in relationship with nature and others. It has to do with love.

Can I say I love trees? Perhaps. I care about them and appreciate their beauty, especially the strong oaks that spread out their branches or the camphor tree in my back yard that has grown in twenty years from a sapling to a huge, powerful presence.  I am in awe of many old trees and love to look at them in their varying shapes and sizes, with or without leaves. Many are ancient (who knows how old?) and have withstood blights and human civilization.  They endure, silently feeding a hidden world of creatures.

I have just read an interesting piece in the New York Review of Books about two new studies of trees, one by a German, one by a British academic. The review prompts me to want to know more about the inner life of trees.  Especially the oaks described by Fiona Stafford (The Long, Long Life of Trees):

"No other tree is so self-possessed, so evidently at one with the world," she writes in the review I quote by Thomas Pakenham.  "The solid, craggy trunk of a mature oak spreads out, as if with open arms, to create a vast hemisphere of thick, clotted leaves."

Do trees have a way of communicating to one another?  Peter Wohlleben indicates they do: in fact, he finds a subtle underground network among the trees he has studied; they send vital information to one another. If a certain tree is threatened by a certain insect, it will send a message prompting other trees to release a chemical that repels the harmful insect. Amazing.

I am glad to know that these authors care about how trees live and die and relate to the rest of the ecosystem--and who, at the same time, look at them with the wonder and awe that I do when I look at the giant cypresses towering over the lake.

Maybe part of my appreciation comes from seeing how often I have taken these trees for granted.  I look at them now with deep gratitude and really see them.